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Auschwitz Survivor | Magda Hilf

Magda's warm, welcoming nature makes you feel right at home, like you're sharing the afternoon with your grandma. Kind, cheerful, and immensely hospitable, you would never guess the incomprehensible tragedies she lived through as a young woman except if you happen to see the numbers marked on her left forearm: A-12743. 

Shortly upon arriving at her charming home with the Crestwood Oral Histories Project team, Magda showed us her family photo album that miraculously survived the war. She slowly turned the pages, sharing the names and photos of relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust. Photographs of her beautiful sister and darling niece and nephew stared back at me, three lives that were taken in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. 

At twenty-two years old, Magda was deported along with her parents, siblings, and extended family from occupied Hungary in an area formally part of Czechoslovakia before the war. They were marched to a railway station and crammed into a cattle car on May 28th, 1944. Seventy-five to eighty people were shoved into each car with one pail of water for drinking and one pail for their toilet. Magda remembers the harrowing journey marked by the cries of children and the suffering of the elderly. It took two days and two nights until they arrived at Auschwitz.

"As soon as the train stopped and the doors were opened, we immediately heard orders in German – “Out! Out! Fast! Fast!” These orders came from S.S. officers, and we also saw men in strange looking stripped pajamas and hats, as well as many dogs. Once we were off the train, we began to be separated – teenagers and young adults to the right, and young children, mothers and older people to the left. I began to panic when I saw that I was separated from my family, and plead to the guard to let me join them. He said no repeatedly, and eventually threw me back and told me to stay there. I did not ask again to join the other group, and it saved my life. I never again saw my family."

Magda later discovered that the SS officer making the selections was the infamous Dr. Mengle—the Angel of Death. 

Selections at Auschwitz via Facing History

She was then forced to shower, was shaved, and her clothing was taken away to be replaced by a rough, striped dress. Magda was taken to a barracks along with one thousand other women, and the barrack supervisor gave the cold, cruel facts of life in Auschwitz. 

"After we arrived, our Jewish supervisor, Sara, gave a speech that I will never forget. She said, 'Girls, you are in Auschwitz. Did you see the crematorium outside? Your parents and sisters and brothers went out the chimney. They were gassed, they are no more. You don’t have much chance to get out of Auschwitz in a different way, so you better get used to this idea.' After this, pandemonium broke out, and we started to scream and cry. We could not understand what was happening to us, and where we were. Sara told us to try to get some rest, since we would need it. Eventually, we fell asleep from exhaustion. We were soon woken up by a whistle at dawn, and were forced to stand for hours doing role call. We looked around for the first time and saw a hell on earth."

A group of women and children going toward Crematoria IV and V via Facing History

Magda found herself surrounded by electric fences, watch towers, and the stench of burning flesh that permeated the air. The camp was covered in smoke. She remembers seeing the flames from the crematoria reach into the black sky at night, a horrifying image that is indelibly stamped in her mind. 

She soon become like a skeleton, starving and exhausted. Every week there were selections to determine who was strong enough to live and who would be taken to the gas chambers. Magda knew her time was numbered. There were only so many selections she could withstand before her body could no longer support her. 

Then in October, the barrack supervisor told them that the SS were looking for two-hundred volunteers to work in an airplane factory. Magda volunteered along with five of her close friends and they were selected to work near Leipzig in an area called MarkkleebergShe was forced to work twelve-hour shifts with little to eat. 

Magda at age 20 (Via Crestwood)
"If anyone was caught to be sneaking extra food from the kitchen, the SS women beat them mercilessly. Once, I received one of these terrible beatings from an SS woman whom we nicknamed 'Lucifer'. She beat me nearly to death for hiding a teaspoon of salt, and I have never felt such rage in my life. After this, she forced me to stand outside in the freezing cold for six hours, in nothing but my overalls. My friends greeted me warmly when I finally returned, as they were nervous that I would freeze to death."

As the Allies drew closer in January 1945, Auschwitz prisoners were evacuated and forced on a death march.

"We were taken immediately on a march that seemed as though it was leading nowhere. SS officers constantly surrounded us, and dogs were always chasing us. No food or shelter was provided at all, and we walked all day and all night. I felt as though I would die at the side of the road."

Magda and four friends decided they were going to escape. "We tried several times, and the dogs always chased us back, until one time we succeeded in escaping to a courtyard and hiding until the group passed us by. We huddled together day and night in the freezing cold, and went to houses to beg for food. Sometimes they would give us a piece of bread, but often we were just chased away."

Then one day an SS soldier spotted them in the streets. He led them out of town and into a forest. Magda recalls hugging her friends and crying. They knew they were about to be executed. "We said goodbye to each other," she told me. 

Just as they were led into the forest, another SS officer drove up on his motorcycle. "What are you doing?" he asked the SS officer who had discovered Magda and her friends.

"I came to shoot some Jews."

"Oh come with me,” the other officer said, “You’ve shot enough Jews already.” 

"And with that, the two of them mounted the bike, and my would-be murderer drove off. After this truly miraculous escape, all five of us were in true shock. We hid in a forest for five days, living off stolen potatoes. We eventually encountered a group of Christian labourers, and joined with them along the road. One night, we were in a town called Michelsdorf, and we fell asleep in a barn. The next morning, May 8th, 1945, we awoke to find that the SS guards who had been patrolling the town had been replaced with soviet soldiers. It finally dawned on us – we were liberated!"

Magda after the war
Story after story, I marveled at her perseverance despite the unspeakable horrors and conditions she lived through. Magda survived the Holocaust not just in body, but also in spirit. For over twenty years she's been sharing her story so that future generations will truly know what happened during the Holocaust. She doesn't seek revenge for the family members she lost. She seeks remembrance and education so people will never forget and so it won't happen again.


(With thanks and gratitude to Scott Masters of the Crestwood Oral Histories Project for making this interview possible and a shout out to Arielle Meyer for all her help!)

Warsaw Ghetto Survivor | Andrew Tylman

Last weekend I had the immense privilege of interviewing five Holocaust survivors in Canada with the Crestwood Oral Histories ProjectWe heard testimonies that were heavy with the heartache that comes from incomprehensible acts of evil, loss, and tragedy. In spite of this, their perseverance and hope outweighed their circumstances and they emerged from the Holocaust as resilient individuals with a love for life and radiant kindness toward others.

I'll start with Andrew.

Andrew was nearly nine years old when deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka extermination camp began. His parents managed to arrange for him to be hidden on the "Ayran" side of Warsaw just a few weeks before the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began in April, 1943.

His father, Henryk, made contact with a Polish man who arranged for the family to be hidden. Andrew was to go first, followed by his parents later. One day he joined his father's work group as they were leaving the ghetto for daily forced labor. He stayed close to the middle of the work group to avoid being seen.

"As we approached the gate the German soldier in charge walked up to us and quizzically looked down at me. I calmly looked up at him. He seemed to be nine feet tall. The head of the group spoke with him, explaining that I was his messenger boy."

Andrew's mother, Mira, had been following the group at a distance. Andrew turned and gave a small wave as he walked out of the ghetto. That was the last time he saw his mother. 

From the ghetto, Andrew was taken to hiding places in various homes in the city and countryside on rotation in order to mitigate the chance of discovery. As a young child in hiding, Andrew had moments of deep sadness where he thought, "Why me?" He felt this especially strong when hiding in the city where he could see children playing freely in the courtyards. 

He was hidden among Polish resistance fighters, such as a farmer's 19 year old son named Francizek. Francizek used to show Andrew underground newspapers that reported resistance activities and war news. Andrew recalls being in the room at a resistance meeting as they were planning action against the Germans. It lasted nearly two hours, during which Andrew pretended to be asleep. A few weeks later, German solders came to the house and beat Francizek behind the barn before taking him away. Andrew never saw him again.

"Afterwards the bloodied pieces of wood, about three inches in diameter that they'd beaten him with was found behind the barn. Then the man who was hiding me said that perhaps they should save the wood for some future memorial museum."

While Andrew was in hiding, his parents were trapped in the ghetto during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. They tried seven times to escape through the sewers. During one attempt a German soldier threw a gas grenade into the sewer, killing Andrew's mother. His father managed to plunge himself into the sewer water fast enough to evade the gas.

Andrew's mother, Mira, is in the center.
In May 1943, SS General Jürgen Stroop ordered his troops to burn the ghetto after weeks of Jewish resistance. Andrew's father joined the last of the ghetto resistance fighters as they escaped through the murky sewers.

"The group, consisting of over one hundred people, was told to be at a specific manhole at a certain time. When they arrived at the appointed place the commanders of the group decided there were too many of them concentrated in one place. They ordered one-third of the group to wait some distance to the left and one-third to the right. Father was told to go with one of the outer groups. He saw that the top commanders were staying right where they were, and he decided to stay there with them."

When the manhole was finally raised, they hurried up the rungs of the ladder and emerged on the Ayran side of Warsaw in broad daylight. Andrew's father remembered Zivia Lubetkin, a commander of the Jewish Fighting Organization (ZOB), being among them. A truck was waiting which Simcha "Kazik" Rotem organized for their evacuation and the fighters piled into the back. Only about forty to fifty people, including Andrew's father, were able to escape. The other two groups didn't survive. Andrew's father met with Zivia, Antek, and Kazik after the war. 

It was mind-boggling to hear Andrew tell this story because when I was in Warsaw I saw the same manhole where the fighters and Andrew's father emerged that day in May, 1943.

Andrew's father stayed in the forests with the partisans briefly before being reunited with Andrew. Itzhak "Antek" Zuckerman, a commander of the ZOB on the Aryan side, arranged for a Polish man named Kajszczak to hide Andrew and his father in his stable. Antek sent false identity papers, books, newspapers, and money to them through Kajszczak. Together in hiding, Andrew and his father had lots of time to talk. This is when he learned what happened to his mother and how his father escaped. 

There were a few close calls when the Germans almost discovered them. One summer morning, Andrew and his father had to hide among sheaves in the fields.

"We stayed there until evening. I heard a woman's voice, not very far away, saying, 'Kill me but don't beat me.' It was one of the Jewish ghetto fighters who had gone into the forest to join the partisans. The group had been scattered after a battle with the Germans. A few partisan survivors were working their way back to where they came from. They asked a few people for directions, and one of them alerted the Germans and they were caught."

The closest call was in the summer of 1944 when a German army unit stopped at Kajszczak's farm and set up a field kitchen. Andrew and his father's hiding place was an enclosure within a pile of wood and branches. A German soldier began taking branches off their hiding place for the fire, and Andrew could see them through the branches. Kajszczak suddenly ran over.

"I have better wood and coal for you to burn. You don't need these branches," Kajszczak said.

Because of this close call, Andrew and his father were moved to another hiding place in Warsaw only two days before the Warsaw Uprising in 1944 which was led by the Polish resistance. Two months later, Warsaw fell to the Germans and Hitler ordered Warsaw to be destroyed. 

Warsaw in ruins
Andrew and his father were among the hundreds of thousands of evacuees who fled the city. They were taken to a transit camp and then sent on a passenger train to south of Krakow. Every village was required to take in evacuees from Warsaw, and Andrew found himself living in poverty on Polish farmstead. They continued on, living with other farmers along the way until liberation. After the liberation they eventually made their way back to their hometown of Sochaczew, Poland. They then made their way to Lodz, Poland, Paris, France, and finally to Toronto, Canada in 1951.

Father and son
Andrew's story is one of amazing survival. His father worked tirelessly to arrange, persuade, and pay for a hiding place, using what little reserves the family had to keep Andrew safe. Andrew and his father survived the Holocaust and are "a living miracle and a testament to the resilience and capacity of the individual" as the Azrieli Foundation so aptly states. I'm incredibly grateful to Andrew for taking the time to tell me his experiences so I can carry them into the future. 

With thanks and gratitude to Scott Masters of the Crestwood Oral Histories Project for making this interview possible! 


Berlin Pt. 1: German Resistance

During Warsaw Academy last summer I had the opportunity to spend three days in Berlin! I wrote a list of all the historical sites we saw and it added up to twenty, not including all the little spots we hit on our walking tour. I saw so much and now, several months later, I need to actually sit down and blog about it!

German Resistance Memorial Center

I honestly could have spent all day at the German Resistance Memorial Center at the Bendlerblock. This is where the July 20th plot to assassinate Hitler was planned and where some of the conspirators were executed, most notably Claus von Stauffenberg. It's now a museum and home to many original resistance documents belonging to groups and individuals such as the conspirators of the July 20th plot, The White Rose, Helmuth Hübener, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. See why I could have stayed forever?! These are some of the groups I've been researching and reading about for years!

5 Ways to Observe Holocaust Remembrance Day

As International Holocaust Remembrance Day approaches on Sunday, January 27th, a look at a recent survey by the Claims Conference shows how imperative this day of remembrance is for our country. The survey found that 66% of U.S. millennials and 41% of adults cannot identify what Auschwitz was, while 22% of millennials and 11% of adults "said they had not heard of, or were unsure if they had heard of the Holocaust." The number of Holocaust survivors are dwindling and anti-semitism is on the rise. What will the world be like when the survivors are gone? It’s our responsibility to carry their stories into the future so that the Holocaust won’t be forgotten, because as these frightening statistics show, it’s already happening.
Here are 5 ways you can observe Holocaust Remembrance Day.


 IRemember Wall